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Keith Lowe

Not a Laughing Matter: Different Cultures of the Second World War Remembrance Across Europe

14 Feburary 2017
  • Holocaust
  • Nazism
  • communism
  • European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
  • Second World War
  • fascism
  • remembrance

Remembrance should never be something cosy. Instead, it should be something uncomfortable, even painful. We need to remember not only the things that were done to us, but also the things that we did to others. We also need to remember how things look from other peoples’ points of view. Remembrance should be the bearer of truth, not of French truth, German truth, or Polish truth, but a complicated mixture of all our truths simultaneously. This is the kind of remembrance that is healthy. This is the kind of Europe that is healthy.

The following speech was delivered during the European Remembrance Symposium, Berlin 2013

Hello. Thank you. It is very nice to be here. Before I say anything else, I should, like everyone else, thank the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity. Thank you for inviting me. Some of you may know that this is not the first conference at which I have spoken about remembrance. A few months ago I addressed the Euro Clio Conference in Erfurt where I spoke about the need for open hearts and minds when dealing with a history that involves other people as well as ourselves. Unfortunately, I was only at the Euro Clio Conference for a very short time, but was there long enough to notice one rather strange thing. The conference was quite busy, with delegates from all over Europe, and everyone was speaking in English as so often happens at these things. But, there was a distinct lack of English people there. I asked one of the organisers why this should be, ‘Where are all my countrymen?’ She simply shrugged and told me that it was always difficult to get British people along to these events.

I have to say that this does not really surprise me: Britain is not really very good at remembrance, particularly when it comes to events of the 20th century. And when I say the word ‘remembrance’ it has quite a specific meaning, especially for British people. It implies something sombre, something sad; remembrance is something you do during a minute of silence. But, British people do not like to remember things like the Second World War in silence. We like to shout about them! We like to celebrate them! Give us any excuse to sweep the dust off our Spitfires and fly them around and we’ll take it. Our novels and histories about the war regularly top the bestseller lists. We make TV dramas about the war, which often get the highest viewing figures. We sing songs about it, we create exhibitions and even make jokes about it. In fact, our jokes about the war, I think, are particularly revealing because we British take our humour very seriously, if that makes sense. It’s in our jokes that we often reveal our collective subconscious.

I heard a joke about the Second World War the other day that will give you an idea of what I mean. I have to warn you this is not a particularly funny joke, but it does demonstrate the point. It goes like this: ‘How many armies does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘It’s at least six. The Germans to start it, the French to give up without really trying, the Italians to start, get nowhere and start from the other side, the Russians to do most of the work, but then smash everything up in the process, the Americans to finish the job off, but then claim credit for the whole thing, and the Swiss to pretend that nothing ever happened in the first place’.

I am quite surprised you laughed! Because actually, I think it is in many ways quite an offensive joke. You can tell immediately that this is a British joke because it criticises everybody except Britain. Everybody else has a reason to be ashamed of themselves because of the way they behaved during the war. But not us. We’re the heroes. The implication is that all of you Europeans are violent, treacherous or cowards, somehow. But, we British are superior in every way, not only because we are honourable, but because we won the war and you didn’t.

This is the way many British people, unfortunately, remember the war. Perhaps not intellectually, but it’s what we feel in our hearts. We have carefully constructed this mythology that allows us to think that we are better than everyone else. I think the equivalent joke about the British might go something like this: ‘How many British people does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘Sixty million.’ Actually, the Russians and the Americans change the light bulb, but sixty million British people sit around and congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Now, I want to tell you a story about remembrance in Britain today. Last year, in 2012, the year that the Olympics came to London, we unveiled a brand-new memorial in the centre of the city. It was a memorial to the men of a bomber command, who flew airplanes over Germany, dropped bombs and so on in the Second World War. Now, there has never been a memorial for these men before in Britain because it has always proved too controversial.

Veterans of the bombing war were understandably a bit angry about this. Why should there be memorials to our sailors, soldiers, and fighter pilots, but nothing to remember the sacrifice of the men who flew the bombers? So anyway, nearly seventy years after the war they finally built this monument. This could have been an opportunity for greater reconciliation and understanding between Britain and Germany. It could have been a memorial to the 55,000 bomber crew who died, but also to the 500,000 Germans who also died under the bombs.

It could have been an opportunity to demonstrate to today’s generation how terrible war is, particularly that war. But, there was no mention of the bombing victims at all. In the end, it was just a monument to the British airmen, as if they were the only ones who had suffered. And I have to say that this is not a small monument, it’s huge: far bigger and grander than any of the other monuments that stand close by. I was expecting, when they unveiled this monument, that there would be some kind of controversy over it, especially since this was happening while the whole world was arriving in London to celebrate the Olympics.

At such a time it seemed like a very insular way of looking at our history. Besides, in the past there has always been controversy about whether Britain’s bombing war was justified. But, to my surprise this time around there was no controversy at all. The newspapers and radio covered the story, but there was almost no mention of the German victims at all. I myself wanted to write a piece for a newspaper asking why this should be the case, but my editor advised me against it. She said: ‘You won’t win any friends, but you will make lots of enemies.’ Nobody in Britain nowadays wants to hear about the victims of the war bombing. They only want to hear about the heroes, our heroes, British heroes.

So, this is the way that we tend to remember the war in Britain today. Where once we remembered the war as a shared catastrophe, a European catastrophe, we now refuse to acknowledge anyone but ourselves. We will remember our dead, but not yours. We will celebrate our dead as heroes and will not spare a thought for the people that we ourselves killed.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against a memorial to the men of bomber command. They were brave men and deserve to be remembered. What I object to, however, is that their sacrifice has been taken out of context. This, I do not think, is remembrance – at least not the proper, soul-searching remembrance that I would like to see. This is more mythology and it makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

That is the way much of Britain, unfortunately, is beginning to remember itself. But, how do we remember others? Let me tell you another joke. It’s a British joke, but you can probably tell it anywhere in Europe, certainly Western Europe, and it will be understood. ‘How many Germans does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘Silence, Schweinhund. We are asking the questions here.’

Again, I am surprised; there is a slight titter there. I mean, that again is not a particularly funny joke. It’s quite offensive. I look at my wife over there and she looks horrified that I should come to Berlin and make a joke like that. It basically says that all German people are members of the Gestapo: this is a really offensive thing to say.

The thing about Germans is that they have had to put up with jokes like this for decades. And they have put up with them. It’s quite astonishing really. But the reason why Germans have put up with jokes like this is because, actually, they have no choice. The crimes that were committed in the name of Germany were probably the worst crimes in history. Since it is impossible to deny these historical crimes (although, as we know, there are some strange people who do actually deny them), there is really nothing that Germans can do but hold their hands up and to admit to them.

To their credit, this is something that Germans and Germany has been doing for almost seventy years now, mostly without complaint. In Germany, you call it Vergangenheitsbewältigung. In Britain, we can call it ‘taking it on the chin’. There is really something quite heroic about it. I think this quality – this willingness of Germans not to fight the subject, but to take our punches on the chin – has won Germany countless friends throughout Europe. No one in the rest of Europe can really imagine what it must have been like to live with this legacy.

I am reminded of the words of a Czech Jew interviewed by the Imperial War Museum in London. He was called Alfred Hübermann, who was liberated from Theresienstadt in 1945, and who said, I quote: ‘When I was first liberated, I thought that Germany should be wiped off the face of the map completely. There was a feeling that one would like to exterminate the whole German nation so this sort of thing could not happen again. But, as time went on, one realised that this was impossible. Whenever I met a German I thought: “What can I say to him?” I could only feel sorry to have to live with that on his conscience.’

It is no coincidence that this symposium is taking place in Germany. The last conference I went to about remembrance also took place in Germany. There are, of course, many reasons for this, but one of them is this German attitude towards remembrance. It is exactly the opposite of the British attitude. For the British, Vergangenheitsbewältigung is an irrelevance; we don’t even have an English word for it. But, for the Germans it is of supreme importance. Unlike any other country in Europe, all Germans are taught from a young age to appreciate their nation’s past sins. We are so accustomed to this that it is sometimes easy to take for granted. But, things are changing in Germany and there are now other forms of remembrance, other memories that are also emerging now.

Germans were not only perpetrators of the war; they were also victims. I was speaking a few moments ago about the British attitude towards bombings and this has begun to change. Well, the Germans’ attitude towards bombing has also begun to change. A few years ago there was quite a famous book by Jörg Friedrich called Der Brand: A History of the Bombing War, which in horrific detail described what it was like for German civilians to be bombed. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies here in Germany. It was actually on sale in Britain as well, but as you can imagine it only sold 3,000 copies. Surprise, surprise.

This is just one example. There are all kinds of other examples of the way that Germans are beginning to remember themselves as victims of the war. They remember the expulsions from other parts of Europe, they remember the rapes that took place here in Berlin when the Soviets arrived. And so on and so on. Now, this makes some people rather nervous; they don’t like the idea of Germans thinking of themselves as victims. Myself, I am not so worried. Of course, Germans suffered as a result of the war and should be allowed to remember that suffering as long as they also do not forget that they were the perpetrators. On the whole, I think that Germany generally gets the balance about right. What worries me more is the thought that some of the traditional German sincerity may be slowly draining away. Germans are tired of apologising for the war and their patience wears a little bit thinner every time outsiders like me make stupid jokes about the Germans being members of the Gestapo.

So let’s leave the Germans alone for just a moment and tell some jokes about other people. ‘How many Frenchmen does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘Two. One to run away and the other one to telephone the Americans and ask them to do it instead.’ Actually, I have a lot of offensive jokes about the French. British people love this sort of thing: ‘Why did the French plant trees along the Champs-Élysées? So that the Germans could march in the shade.’ ‘Why don’t they have fireworks at Euro Disney? Because every time they fire them off, the French try to surrender.’ And did you hear about the new French flag? It’s a white cross on a white background. I could tell you dozens more. If you’re French, please do not be too offended, because when I was a child I used to spend my holidays in Italy and heard exactly the same jokes being told about Italians then. I daresay that we British tend to say the same jokes about the Dutch, Danes or Belgians if we are ignorant of those countries.

But, the French are a particularly good target. They were one of the world’s great powers before the war, so their embarrassment by Germany was all the greater. If there is one thing that we British enjoy, it is Schadenfreude; it may be a German word but, unfortunately, we British embrace it. Remembrance in France and indeed in much of Western Europe is much more complicated, I think, than in Britain and Germany. Once again, it is not made easier by outsiders coming and making stupid jokes about them. Almost every aspect of French remembrance is controversial, so I want to look at some of these aspects, in turn.

Firstly, when the French look back at the Second World War they remember themselves as victims. Half a million French people were killed in the war. Two million French men were taken to Germany as forced labour. The Nazis humiliated and abused French people and performed countless atrocities on French soil. The most famous symbol of French victimhood is the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.

If you remember, this was the village where one of the greatest atrocities took place: a German division came through and rounded up all the men and shot them. They then herded up all the women and children into a church and set fire to it. Nowadays the village of Oradour-sur-Glane is a national monument. It has been preserved exactly as it was on the day of the massacre as a memorial to French victimhood.

Even in this archetypal symbol, things are not quite straightforward. When the French investigated this atrocity in the 1950s they discovered that some of the SS soldiers who carried it out were not quite as German as they had thought. Some of them were actually from Alsace, which is a region of France. In other words, when you look at it more closely, the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane is not only a symbol of victimhood, but also of collaboration.

Collaboration is the dark shadow that lies behind every act of French remembrance. The French collaborated with the Nazis at every level of society – sometimes involuntarily, sometimes enthusiastically. Unsurprisingly, this is something that they do not often wish to commemorate.

I want to give you an example of this reluctance, this desire to forget. As is the custom in many countries, there is a tradition in France of naming streets and squares and boulevards after famous French heroes. In 1945, there were hundreds of streets named after the war-time leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain. This is not the equivalent of the German habit during the war of renaming every town square ‘Adolf Hitler Platz’. Philippe Pétain actually was a true French hero: he was the man who saved the nation during the First World War by repelling the Germans at Verdun. But, after the Second World War he was no longer a hero; he was a collaborator. So the French no longer wanted streets named after him and began renaming all of them. Today, there isn’t a single street in France bearing his name. I think the last ‘Rue Maréchal Pétain’ was in a village called Vinrin in northern France and it was renamed just this April.

All of this is quite understandable. To have a street named after you is a great honour and if you have acted shamefully you should have this honour withdrawn. But, there is also something else going on here. The French want to remember themselves as heroes, not as collaborators. When they drive down the Boulevard Général Leclerc in Paris or study at the Lycée Jean Moulin they remember their past as the past of heroes and martyrs. The collaborators, on the other hand, have been erased from public memory. Isn’t that just a little bit convenient? By erasing their names from streets and boulevards the French are removing the things that make them feel uncomfortable. It is much easier to pretend that collaboration did not really happen if you are not reminded of it everyday when walking down a street.

So you see, commemoration of the war in France is a much more complicated matter than it is in Germany or Britain. In Britain, we are all very happy to remember ourselves as heroes, regardless of what really happened in the past. In Germany, you are more resigned to remember yourselves as the villains, but in France they are somewhere in between – and it is difficult to define exactly where. On one hand, they are indeed victims and martyrs; on the other hand, they are heroes and resisters, but also obliged to remember some of the more uncomfortable things – the crimes they themselves committed and the way that many of them collaborated.

These are the shadows that lie behind every act of remembrance, not just in France, but in all of Western Europe. Incidentally, the French as we have heard collaborated not only with the Nazis. There was enormous sympathy with communists as well, which is another subject.

Let us get back to my terrible light bulb jokes (these are all real jokes by the way; I did not make any of them up and would have tried to make them funnier if I had!). The next one is this: ‘How many Polish people does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘One. But it takes an entire Soviet division to make sure that he doesn’t go on strike.’

As you can tell, this is probably a joke from the 1980s and the first thing you notice is that it is not derogatory. The Pole in the joke is not a sadist or coward, or anything else bad. In fact, he is a hero: one Polish man holding down an entire Soviet division.

I would forgive you for thinking that this is slightly unfair. I have been rude about the French and Germans, so why can’t I also be rude about the Poles? Well, the answer is that I am not allowed to be rude about the Poles. Firstly, we British still feel guilty about what we did to Poland during the Second World War – or rather what we did not do.

When Stalin demanded the eastern part of Poland to become part of the Soviet Union, we did not stand up to him; we just rolled over and gave it to him. In compensation, of course, we then gave Poland a part of Germany and that caused all kinds of other controversies that are still raging today.

The second reason why we British cannot be rude about the Poles is that, frankly, we felt sorry for them. Not only had their country been invaded by the Nazis, but also by the Soviets. At the time when I first heard that joke in the 1980s, Poland still had to dance to the Soviet tune. Don’t worry, by the way, we no longer feel sorry for Poland and have all kinds of offensive jokes about them. But that is a different story.

My point is that if remembrance of the Second World War and its aftermath is complicated in Western Europe, it is much more complicated in Eastern and Central Europe. To begin with: what should be remembered? The problem of remembrance in Poland is not that of quality, but quantity: there is simply too much to remember. To start with, the Poles were the archetypal victims; invaded from both directions and brutally suppressed by two enemies. The entire country could be made into a memorial if we wanted to. Every street in Warsaw was the sight of some atrocity or other. All the main extermination camps for the Jews were in Poland and some of them also became infamous communist punishment centres after 1945.

But, the Poles were not only these archetypal victims. They were also archetypal heroes. Resistance to Nazi rule in Poland was massive and universal. Unlike in Western Europe, everyone really was in the resistance in Poland; there was a secret army there, a secret government, secret schools and universities. A whole network of resistance that encompassed not just thousands, but millions of people.

The Poles do not feel the need to be careful about the resistance myth like the French do. The Poles feel confident enough to shout about the resistance as proudly as they like. Of course, there was also a huge amount of resistance to Soviet rule. Not so much as against the Nazis, perhaps, but, as any Polish patriot will tell you, the last member of Armia Krajowa was not flushed out of the forest until the mid-1960s. That gives you a sense of the strength of feeling of these people.

So this is the way that Poles like to remember themselves. A bit like the British: they think they are all heroes and victims. If you go to Warsaw today, you will see a huge, brand-new museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising. And you’ll see the symbols of Polish war-time resistance – symbols from nearly seventy years ago – not only in the museum, but as graffiti on the walls and even stickers on the backs of people’s cars.

If the story stopped there, remembrance in Poland would be very easy. But, unfortunately, the story does not end there; of course it doesn’t. Poles were not only victims and heroes during the war, but were also perpetrators. Their treatment of Jews was nothing to be proud of and there are many places in Poland where Poles joined in with the Holocaust, sometimes enthusiastically.

Even more shamefully, this anti-Semitism continued after the war ended. In places like Kielce, for example, Jews continued to be attacked well into the late 1940s. As you can imagine, remembering this part of their history makes many Polish people very uncomfortable. Some people react to this discomfort simply by pushing it away, by trying to pretend to themselves that it did not happen or that it did not matter.

I can tell you a story that demonstrates this quite clearly. I was in Poland recently to publicise the Polish edition of my book. I must have been interviewed at least fifteen or twenty times and, as always happens with those interviews, a certain pattern began to emerge as to the sort of questions I was asked. Firstly, I was repeatedly asked by interviewers why Western historians always ignore the fate of Poland in their books. I did not really know how to answer these questions because – as far as I am aware – Western historians do not ignore Poland.

They talk about Poland all the time. In Britain alone, there are books about the invasion of Poland in 1939, books about the Warsaw Uprising, books about the Katyń massacre, the Soviet takeover, and about almost every act of the war in Poland. There are even books about individual PoIish airforce squadrons in Britain or about individual Polish army units. Some of these books are bestsellers in Britain. So, as far as I can see, in my country at least the West does not ignore Poland at all. But, for some reason this seems to be the way that Poles see things. Perhaps this is a hangover from the Cold War when Eastern Europe felt itself to be forgotten by the West. I honestly do not know. Perhaps Poles are so used to putting themselves at the centre of the story that they cannot quite under- stand why they are not at the centre of it in Britain and France and so on, too.

I think that in some ways some people feel that the West’s view of Poles is just not quite heroic enough and that our sympathy for the Poles is just not quite sympathetic enough for a nation of heroes and martyrs. The second question that I was repeatedly asked in Poland was why the West always insists on calling the Poles anti-Semitic. Again, I am not aware of any great Western belief that modern-day Poles are anti-Semitic. We do have a perception that many Poles during the war were anti-Semitic. But, even the most patriotic of Poles must acknowledge that anti-Semitism was widespread during the war and that evidence of it is overwhelming. This may not be a comfortable subject for Poles to acknowledge, but it is not an invention by Western historians.

One interview I had was particularly eye-opening in this respect. It was an interview with a national newspaper and for 45 minutes I was asked about why I talked about Polish anti-Semitism in the aftermath of the war. Didn’t I know that the Poles had helped the Jews, too? Didn’t I know that the Kielce pogrom was instigated by the communists? And so on and so on for 45 minutes.

I should explain to you that my book is not about Poles and not about Jews. It is about the whole of Europe in the aftermath of the war. It is full of atrocities, revenge killings, and stories of local civil wars that took place everywhere, from Norway in the north to Greece in the south, from France all the way through to Ukraine. The section about Polish anti-Semitism was about four pages long. Not only that, I was not particularly picking on the Poles. I actually spent far longer talking about anti-Semitism in Hungary and Slovakia, in Holland and France and so on. But this was the only thing he questioned me about for 45 minutes. That was the strangest interview I ever had.

It only dawned on me afterwards as to what really was going on here. This man was desperately trying to protect an idea. As far as he was concerned, Poles were victims and heroes during and after the Second World War; they were not the perpetrators. If some Poles were anti-Semitic during the war, it was not their fault; it was the fault of the Nazis. And if some Poles had been anti-Semitic after the war, that was not their fault either; it was the fault of the communists. I also asked this journalist at the time, who was it who beat those Jews to death in Kielce? It wasn’t the Nazis or communists, but ordinary Poles. And who were these communists who supposedly started the violence in Kielce? These communists were also Polish. This opens up a whole new problem for remembrance in Poland and indeed for the whole of Eastern Europe because Poles were not only victims and heroes, but occasionally the perpetrators of crimes. They were also collaborators.

Perhaps not collaborators with the Nazis – not so much in Poland, but certainly collaborators with the Soviets. In 1945, people in Poland joined the communist party in the hundreds of thousands. They helped the Soviets win control over the country. They even denounced resistance fighters to the authorities. This is not something that Poland particularly likes to remember now. Just like the memory of French collaboration during the Second World War, it remains a guilty shadow that simply will not go away.

Which reminds me of another joke: ‘How many communists does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘None. Because the light bulb contains the seeds of its own revolution.’ I love this joke because, of course, the word ‘revolution’ in English also means ‘to revolve, to turn’, like when you’re screwing in a light bulb. But my point is that it was not only the Soviets who changed this light bulb in Europe, in Eastern Europe. The light bulb did a small part of the job, of the work, by itself.

Every nation in Europe has a different experience of the past. Some of us were never occupied by an enemy at all. Some of us were occupied by the Nazis, the communists, or by both. Some of us experienced fascism or communism as an outside force and some of us had our own home-grown versions of it. The idea that we can all see history in the same way is really just an impossible dream. All of us are simply too different from one another.

As I hope I have shown, in some respects problems in both East and West are exactly the same. We all want to remember ourselves as heroes and martyrs, but all have to face the inconvenient truth that we were also perpetrators in one respect or another. All of us are reluctant to face this because it hurts. Our problem is that we want our history to make us feel good about ourselves. So, we create nice cosy myths like pretty bubbles floating in the air. When outsiders come and pop these bubbles with their sharp and spiteful jokes, we do whatever we can to defend them.

In other respects, however, there are some very real differences between us. Not just between East and West, but between every single country. I have used France as an example of Western Europe, but the French situation is nothing like the situation in, say, Italy, Denmark, or Belgium. I have also used Poland as an example of Eastern Europe, but in many ways, actually, Poland was exceptional. The experience of both fascism and communism was very different in Romania or Hungary.

Every nation in Europe has a different experience of the past. Some of us were never occupied by an enemy at all. Some of us were occupied by the Nazis, the communists, or by both. Some of us experienced fascism or communism as an outside force and some of us had our own home-grown versions of it. The idea that we can all see history in the same way is really just an impossible dream.

All of us are simply too different from one another. So, is there anything at all that unites us? Well, yes, I believe there is and I can demonstrate this with another joke. Please, bear with me! ‘How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘It takes six million before the rest of the world finally sees the light.’ For the past sixty or seventy years, ironically, the Jews have been the unifying symbol in Europe. The Jews were unquestionably the greatest victims of the Second World War. Not only that, but we all acknowledge that we should feel guilty for what happened to them.

While the Nazis bear the ultimate responsibility for the Holocaust, we were all complicit: the French and Dutch administrators who gave out their addresses, the Italians and Belgian police who helped round them up, the Romanian and Hungarian railway officials who transported them, and so on. Even the countries that were not occupied by the Nazis during the war cannot escape the guilt because when the Jews came to Britain or Sweden or Switzerland for sanctuary, we turned them away.

The one act of remembrance that unites us all today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Indeed, this is probably the only time when my own countrymen shut up about how brilliant we are and join everyone else in respectful silence. Even that Polish journalist who questioned me so closely about anti-Semitism must feel sombre on Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a sacred day in our calendar. For non-Jews it is unique because, unlike virtually every other remembrance day, it is not a day to remember the things that happened to us. It is a day when we remember something that happened to others. I say ‘others’ here because there are very few Jews left in Europe today; less than one percent of the population.

But, actually in some way that is the wrong word to use because Holocaust Memorial Day also invites us to put ourselves in their shoes, to imagine what it would have been for us if we too had been Jewish. It is, therefore, simultaneously an act of contrition, sympathy and empathy.

There are hundreds of memorials to the Holocaust all over Europe and I would argue that these are the most important memorials we have. Not only do they remind us that this great war was not glorious, a terrible thing, but also of the horrors of extreme nationalism. They are a warning to all of us. More importantly they are also a warning that we all listen to.

So what is this warning? What is it trying to tell us? This is where I can finally put my finger on what I feel is one of the main differences between East and West. In Eastern and Central Europe, there is sometimes a perception that fascism and communism were somehow equivalent to one another. They were both totalitarian systems. They both committed terrible crimes. The wounds of fascism are old, but the wounds of communism are still fresh. So there is a temptation sometimes to remember the crimes of communism first and foremost. In fact, some people are tempted to remember the fascists fondly: since the fascists fought against the communists, they were the good guys, right?

But fascism and communism were not the same. For all their crimes, there was no communist equivalent of Auschwitz. There was no communist equivalent of the Holocaust. Sure, we should repudiate communism and what it did to Eastern Europe. But we should always remember to repudiate fascism more. I make this point only because I think that communism is all but dead now in Europe. However, fascism, in the form of radical nationalism, is still very much alive. This is a far bigger threat today than is communism. Extreme nationalism is an ideology that blames all our problems on outsiders. It promotes stereotypes that are not helpful: the sort of stereotypes I have been demonstrating in my stupid light bulb jokes. It poisons our memories with stories and false statistics that exaggerate our own victimhood and belittle the suffering of others.

This is why I think that remembrance, real remembrance, is so important. It should never be something cosy. Instead, it should be something uncomfortable, even painful. We need to remember not only the things that were done to us, but also the things that we did to others. We also need to remember how things look from other peoples’ points of view. Remembrance should be the bearer of truth, not of French truth, German truth, or Polish truth, but a complicated mixture of all our truths simultaneously. This is the kind of remembrance that is healthy. This is the kind of Europe that is healthy. It’s a hard, messy, and painful thing to do, but it is infinitely better than the pretty myths and fairytales that we would rather tell ourselves I am afraid that this is something that is potentially being lost today. Every nation in Europe is becoming more cynical of the European Union, more dismissive of neighbours more defensive about itself. We are all retreating to our own nationalist perspectives and own nationalist myths without ever bothering to look back on what it is we are throwing away.

Which leads me to one final joke: ‘How many ultra-nationalists does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘None. Because they’d much rather sit in the dark.’

Thank you.


Keith Lowe is a British author and historian, who studied English Literature at the University of Manchester. For several years he worked as a history editor and in 2010 become a full-time writer. His first novel Tunnel Vision (2001) was shortlisted for the Author’s Club First Novel Award. Lowe has published two critically acclaimed history books about the Second World War and its aftermath. Inferno (2007) describes the firebombing of Hamburg by the British and American air forces in 1943. Savage Continent (2012), a history of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, covers the lawlessness, chaos, and unconstrained violence that gripped the continent from 1944 to 1949. It covers a variety of controversial issues such as postwar vengeance, ethnic cleansing and the many civil wars that took place across Europe. It won Britain’s Hessell-Tiltman Prize for history in 2013 and Italy’s Cherasco History Prize the following year. His books have been translated into 20 languages.


This article has been published as a part of the publication featuring the most significant texts from the annual European Remembrance Symposium, for the period 2012-16

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